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Gold Medal Service


Sheetz' MTO Olympics highlights the speed and skill of the chain's food and beverage prep

Athletes all over the world are rushing to prepare for this summer's Olympic Games in London. But in March, another kind of Olympics was held closer to home at the Hershey Lodge in Derry Township, Pa. Instead of showcasing athletic performance, Sheetz Inc.'s Made-to-Order (MTO) Olympics recognized speed, accuracy and presentation of its foodservice.

Three-person teams that had made their way to the main event through preliminary competitions throughout Sheetz's markets competed for the main prize, with the winners walking away with more than $1,000 in cash and prizes.

Although the MTO Olympics doesn't stretch back centuries like its namesake, Sheetz is not exactly new to these games. This year's competition marked the 11th MTO Olympics in 12 years (they were suspended once for the convenience store chain's 50th anniversary, so company managers could go on a cruise) and they've only grown more elaborate and ambitious over time.

"The original concept was to host some event to try to get store operations folks excited about selling food," Douglas Mills, director of food and beverage sales and development for Sheetz, told Convenience Store News. "To create camaraderie between districts and employees and regions."

The 2012 competition featured an "all in" Las Vegas casino theme, and an Elvis impersonator served as master of ceremonies, awarding prizes to the store managers who wore the best costumes in a dress-up contest. Past themes have incorporated NASCAR racing and St. Patrick's Day. "Each year, it gets crazier and crazier, to be honest with you," said Mills.

Sheetz builds replica store kitchens at the competition site, shipping in equipment and live count-down clocks to add to the tension and excitement.

The first convention-style MTO Olympics was more casual and served as a method of getting employees to focus on selling food and speed of service. Back then, company managers could select any three employees to compete. As the MTO Olympics have become more elaborate, the selection process has grown more rigorous, with the individual stores making the first cuts.

"They have a competition at their store to find the fastest, most-accurate three-man team that they can assemble," Mills explained. "The best of the best are the ones that put themselves forward for this event."

Next, the teams head to a district-wide competition to determine who moves on to a regional trial that hosts teams from all 37 Sheetz districts. In the end, each of the retailer's four regions sends one team to the MTO Olympics.

While the Olympics themselves are a spring event, the qualifying competitions are spaced out over time, something that Mills said helps keep employees engaged and excited throughout the year. "Employees take honor in participating," he noted. "It's a badge of honor to be a participant in the Olympics."

At the main event, teams must be prepared to fulfill orders for any item they might prepare in a real Sheetz store. It may be a challenge to get everything done quickly and just right, but a skilled team shouldn't have any worries, as the menu items for the competition are "items they should be very familiar with making each day in the store," Mills said.

Products made for this year's Olympics included Sheetz' traditional made-to-order 12-inch subs, hot dogs, a breakfast sandwich, a hot latte and more. Contest officials place orders through a touchscreen, just like a real customer would, in order to simulate the real consumer experience.

The Olympics are "trying to get them to focus on creating the best consumer experience possible, simulating what they do in the store each day," explained Mills.

Five years ago, competing teams expanded from two members to three with the introduction of a dedicated barista. In theory, the food and drink preparers will stick to their dedicated roles, but Sheetz' training practices mean no one will be left in a pinch.

"Because everyone's crossed trained, they can jump in and help," he said.

It's not enough to be the first team to complete a competition order. The MTO Olympics features a 14-member panel of judges who evaluate the teams on safety, appearance, portioning, speed and accuracy. Each team is assigned their own pair of judges, who come from company backgrounds that include marketing and sales, research and development, operational efficiency and quality assurance.

"People who are intimate with foodservice programs at Sheetz," Mills reiterated. The judges are more critical now that the degree of difficulty for contestants is higher, and a greater emphasis on accuracy and presentation has changed what used to be a "speed Olympics."

As the size of the MTO Olympics and the skill of the participants have increased, so has the event's production value. "The production factor is first-class," said Mills. This year — the first that the press was invited to attend — pyrotechnics, confetti canons and lights accompanied a "smack-talk video" played on the main viewing screen as each competitor was introduced.

This year's winners — a Bedford, Pa.-based team composed of Kristy Crist, Melissa Henry and Kaylee Shomo from Region No. 3, District No. 26, Store No. 28 — took home $1,000 cash, an Apple iPad 2 and a Vita-Mix Creations commercial blender apiece. Each member of the second-place team received $750, an Amazon Kindle Fire and a Bunn MyPod Coffee Brewer with 100 Sumatra pods. Third-place winners earned $500, an Apple iPod and a gourmet coffee gift basket.

The prizes are enough to motivate anyone, but the rewards for Sheetz are much greater.

"Made-to-order food and beverage has become a much larger part of our business — a more important piece of our financial pie," said Mills. Emphasis on foodservice grows every year, making it more and more important for Sheetz to keep its employees focused and engaged. "Each day, [food] becomes a more important part of our business."

For comments, please contact Angela Hanson, Assistant Editor, at [email protected].

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